Crime Scene - - CONTENTS - BY James MOT­TRAM

Di­rec­tor Ben Wheat­ley talks clas­sic crime, Scors­ese and film­ing the ul­ti­mate shoot-out.

Af­ter his hit­man hor­ror Kill List, killers-in-a-caravan com­edy Sight­seers, the Lsd-fu­elled Civil War tale A Field In Eng­land and J.G. Bal­lard adap­ta­tion High-rise, Ben Wheat­ley has fast be­come one of the most ad­mired British film­mak­ers of his gen­er­a­tion. So much so, he caught the at­ten­tion of Martin Scors­ese. The es­teemed di­rec­tor of Mean Streets and Good­fel­las was in the UK mak­ing Hugo when he en­coun­tered Kill List, Wheat­ley’s 2011 fol­low-up to his no-bud­get de­but Down Ter­race.

Un­der­stand­ably, Wheat­ley was ec­static when he read an in­ter­view with Scors­ese wax­ing lyri­cal about this dis­cov­ery. “[ Scors­ese’s] Taxi Driver was the first film I ever saw where I re­alised there was a di­rec­tor in­volved,” he says, fight­ing off a cold when he meets Crime Scene at Lon­don’s Corinthia Hotel. “It was so dif­fer­ent from any­thing I’d seen. Up un­til that, ev­ery­thing else felt generic, but that felt re­ally raw and alive and the cam­era moves were in­cred­i­ble.”

When he was pro­mot­ing Sight­seers in New York, Wheat­ley met Scors­ese at his of­fice – and so be­gan a beau­ti­ful friend­ship. Of­fer­ing up poster quotes for A Field In Eng­land was one thing; but now Scors­ese is the ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on Wheat­ley’s sixth film, Free Fire, nom­i­nally set in Mas­sachusetts in the 1970s. As a weapons-for-cash ex­change goes bloody and bru­tal in a de­serted ware­house, aptly – given the Scors­ese con­nec­tion – it’s Wheat­ley and his co-writer/wife Amy Jump’s first foray into the crime genre.

While the ob­vi­ous in­flu­ence for this one‑lo­ca­tion thriller is Quentin Tarantino’s Reser­voir Dogs, Wheat­ley chuck­les when asked about his in­spi­ra­tions. “I did a press re­lease say­ing it was all in­flu­enced by ba­si­cally ev­ery crime film ever made, from The Big Sleep to Tarantino. But I wanted to get back to that feel­ing of mak­ing some­thing that was about real peo­ple un­der real pres­sure and in real jeop­ardy, but much smaller stakes. It wasn’t about su­per­heroes blow­ing up plan­ets and cities dis­solv­ing. Crawl­ing up a flight of stairs is one of the big ac­tion se­quences in the film!”

The plot be­gins as two IRA gun­men – Chris (Cil­lian Mur­phy) and Frank (Wheat­ley reg­u­lar Michael Smi­ley) – ar­rive to buy a truck-load of ri­fles from mouthy South African arms dealer Ver­non (Sharlto Co­p­ley) and his part­ner Martin (Babou Ceesay). But when the hot-headed Harry (Jack Reynor) spots Chris and Frank’s junkie minion Stevo (Sam Ri­ley), with whom he’d had an al­ter­ca­tion the night be­fore, so be­gins the Mex­i­can stand-off to end them all. “Free Fire is an ex­am­ple of unchecked male ego,” says Co­p­ley. “It’s lit­er­ally a bar fight gone ul­ti­mately wrong.”

Oddly, the start­ing point was a British crime film: Ju­lian Jar­rold’s Red Rid­ing: 1974, the first in the tril­ogy of TV films that came from David Peace’s sen­sa­tional quar­tet of books set around the time of the York­shire Rip­per. It was the bar shootout in the film’s fi­nal stretch that re­ally fired Wheat­ley’s imag­i­na­tion. “I won­dered, ‘How many peo­ple have ever been shot in the UK in one shoot­ing?’” His re­search swiftly led him to the an­swer: not many. And so Wheat­ley went down a “rab­bit hole”, in­ves­ti­gat­ing sto­ries of real-life shootouts.

“It’s very dif­fer­ent from what you see in the movies,” he ex­plains. “If you’ve not got mil­i­tary train­ing, you’ve got no chance with a gun, ba­si­cally.” One par­tic­u­lar ’80s shootout, ac­cord­ing to an FBI tran­script he read, went on for 90 min­utes, with ri­vals sus­tain­ing in­juries but not dy­ing. “I thought that was in­ter­est­ing – they were fir­ing at each other from point-blank range and not hit­ting each other. Even [ for] peo­ple who are trained, in the mo­ment, it’s so ter­ri­fy­ing and dif­fi­cult, you can’t ac­tu­ally do it. I thought that could be the ba­sis for some­thing.”

Other ideas then be­gan to per­co­late: set­ting it in the ’70s au­to­mat­i­cally ruled out the use of mo­bile phones. “It had to be set in a pe­riod where you couldn’t just pick up a phone and go, ‘Oh, we’ve been shot!’. That would’ve changed the shape of it.” Sud­denly, reach­ing a land­line in an of­fice up­stairs be­comes a vi­tal plot point as char­ac­ters race – or rather crawl be­cause of leg wounds – to phone in re­in­force­ments. It’s one of sev­eral “mini-mis­sions” that Wheat­ley struc­tures the film around.

Then there was the set­ting. Orig­i­nally keen to work with Cil­lian Mur­phy and Michael Smi­ley, Wheat­ley “tried to think of a way that they could be put to­gether.” Also keen

An ex­am­ple of unchecked male ego, it’s lit­er­ally a bar fight gone ul­ti­mately wrong

to make an Amer­i­can-set film, Wheat­ley had read sto­ries about the IRA buy­ing guns in Amer­ica and smug­gling the con­tra­band back to Belfast on the QE2. “But the film it­self is very un­spe­cific – there are no dates in the film and it also never says where it is ei­ther,” the di­rec­tor adds. “There’s a ref­er­ence to Mas­sachusetts but there are no specifics. We were very par­tic­u­lar about that.”

While Wheat­ley ad­mires crime writ­ers like James Ell­roy (“I’ve read a lot of his”) and Ray­mond Chan­dler (“all that LA crime stuff”), it was ’70s films that pro­vided a “tonal” model for Free Fire – like The Friends of Ed­die Coyle, Straight Time and Charley Var­rick. “There’s a tough­ness to them which is dif­fer­ent,” says Wheat­ley. “I think it’s a gen­er­a­tional at­ti­tude. How they deal with their mas­culin­ity. Their own moral­ity is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from now. The ’70s movies are much harsher than they would be now. The char­ac­ters are colder.”

On set, film ref­er­ences were made. “We talked about a lot of stuff,” says Reynor ( Sing Street). “I think Ben has a deep-seated love and re­spect for hard­boiled ac­tion movies, like Point Blank, the Lee Marvin film. I know he loves that.” Wheat­ley even gave Reynor a copy of 1978’s Who’ll Stop The Rain (aka Dog Soldiers), in which Nick Nolte plays a Viet­nam vet­eran turned heroin smug­gler. “That’s the thing about Ben – he’s a wealth of knowl­edge when it comes to these re­ally old-school ac­tion films.”

Al­though Free Fire is tech­ni­cally Wheat­ley’s first Amer­i­can film – and even fea­tures Os­car-win­ner Brie Lar­son ( Room) and Ar­mie Ham­mer ( The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) in the cast – it was ac­tu­ally shot in Sus­sex, in the old print­ing works be­long­ing to the Brighton Ar­gus news­pa­per. With the pro­duc­tion ship­ping in dirt to dis­tress what was a pris­tine ware­house and turn it into a filthy, rub­ble-filled hovel, Wheat­ley makes no apolo­gies for keep­ing the pro­duc­tion lo­cal. “They bring Gotham City to Lon­don all the time, so it’s not as odd as it sounds.”

Even the open­ing scene, at the docks, was shot in Eng­land – at Shore­ham. In a strange stroke of luck, the pro­duc­tion even found an aban­doned Gran Torino car sit­ting there. “We looked at it and it had tax discs in it from New York 1974 – what is this car do­ing here?” says Wheat­ley. “It was ba­si­cally bought in Amer­ica, in New York. Some­one had died and it had been shipped to Shore­ham. The guy who got it in Shore­ham died and it sat there since the ’70s. So we went ‘Can we use it?’ And they went ‘Yeah!’ It was re­ally bizarre.”

In keep­ing with the old-school movies Wheat­ley was in­flu­enced by, he was keen to do as much as pos­si­ble in-cam­era. From the bul­let blast muz­zle flashes to a head be­ing squashed by a tyre, the pro­duc­tion em­ployed prac­ti­cal ef­fects rather than dig­i­tal trick­ery. Con­ti­nu­ity was a night­mare, though, with each bul­let fired need­ing to be ac­counted for. “If you fire at the wall and dust comes out of that wall, that all has to be built into pan­els in that wall – it’s not some­thing you can make up on the day.”

Most shock­ingly, Sharlto Co­p­ley ( Dis­trict 9) vol­un­teered to shoot the scene – with­out a stunt­man dou­ble – where his char­ac­ter is set on fire. It was filmed on the very last day of the shoot. “I nearly chick­ened out on the morn­ing,” the ac­tor laughs. “I was to­tally gung-ho, full-on ma­cho, I’m go­ing to do this. Then in the morn­ing I saw how se­ri­ous all the stunt guys were about burns, they re­ally don’t mess around. I’d never done a burn be­fore. I think I’d done some­thing with a flame on an arm once but noth­ing like this.”

Sadly, as ro­man­tic an idea as it is to imag­ine Martin Scors­ese ar­riv­ing in the mean streets of Brighton, the di­rec­tor didn’t make it down to Wheat­ley’s set. But he was kept fully up to date on Free Fire, as it went from the shoot to post-pro­duc­tion. “Noth­ing goes through with­out him see­ing it and be­ing across it,” says Wheat­ley. “We had to take it to him and show it to him, which was ter­ri­fy­ing. But he loved it – he thought it was great.” High praise in­deed. Free Fire opens on 31 March.

Cil­lian­mur­phy as Chris. Rogues’ gallery: Sharlto Co­p­ley, Ar­mie Ham­mer, Jack Reynor and Noah Tay­lor.

Michael Smi­ley plays an IRA gun­man whose arms deal goes off the rails. Jus­tine (Brie Lar­son) bro­kers an ill­fated meet­ing be­tweenira gun­men and a gang with a stash of guns.

Ar­mie Ham­mer on set with di­rec­tor Ben Wheat­ley.

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